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Cancer Stem Cells

Between 1-5% of the total mass of a cancer is composed of Cancer Stem Cells (CSCs), which generate the fast proliferating cells that make up the bulk of tumours. CSCs are linked to some of the most malignant features of cancer, including chemo-resistance and metastasis (secondary cancer spread). For example, a major feature contributing to the aggressive properties of triple negative breast cancer is a high proportion of CSCs.

Metastasis can take place many months or years after surgery to remove a primary tumour from the body, and once other treatments have been delivered. It is as if the dandelion has been removed from the lawn, but the CSC root is left below the surface to regrow at a later date.

Cancer stem cells are often migratory and are connected to the process of dissemination to distant sites. The rationale for studying how these cells work is clear: if the molecular differences between them and their fast-dividing progeny can be elucidated, therapies specifically targeting cancer stem cells could be developed, enabling treatments to more fully cut cancers out by the roots.

Professor Stebbing's team are working on a large project aimed at gaining a fundamental understanding of the mechanisms behind CSCs. Gaining such a comprehensive picture of how CSCs operate will help the team answer hugely important questions such as:

  • 'why do certain patients not respond to treatments?'
  • 'what conditions allow some tumours to metastasise around the body?'
  • 'how can treatments specifically target the most malignant cells?'

The likely revelation of new drivers of cell state transition to and from the CSC population will permit the discovery of new molecular targets for the eradication of these cells. We are also looking to identify biomarkers, to help indicate which patients would be eligible for treatment.

This is pioneering research that we hope will act as a catalyst for the design of targeted treatments to improve the survival prospects and quality of life for cancer sufferers worldwide.

See more about the cancer stem cells programme in our film A Voyage of Discovery here.

Project Spotlights:

Stopping breast cancer in its tracks, despite coronavirus

Developing new drugs for all breast cancer patients

New hope for cancer patients: tackling heterogeneity

Controlling pancreatic cancer stem cells

Microscopic image of Genetic switches
Genetic switches are operated by DNA-binding proteins
Microscopic image of Cancer Stem Cells
Cancer stem cells can differentiate to reform entire tumours following therapy cessation.
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Microscopic image of Cancer Stem Cells
Cancer stem cells can differentiate to reform entire tumours following therapy cessation.